I had never before seen anything like Mexico City. Street vendors, tourists, beggars, business people, and paint huffing six year old children, walk among 800 year old Aztec ruins, 400 year old Catholic Cathedrals, and modern sky-scrapers. All of which share the same patch of real estate. College kids drink in the same bars as prostitutes. Displaced indigenous women sit on the sidewalk and sell hand made tlacoyos for thirty cents to the Americans and Europeans that reach down to drop the coins into their waiting hands. A beautiful park filled with miles of green grass and lush trees sits just a few miles from the trash dumps that hundreds of families use for food and shelter. Impeccably clean museums frame the history of the city with well preserved art and artifacts, while garbage and pollution help to spread sickness outside of those same walls. Massive Diego Rivera murals show the clash of the cultures that have come together here over the years. Modern subway trains cost twenty cents, and provide transportation for elderly grandmothers, grade school students, and petty thieves alike. The contrasts are unmistakable and unavoidable. The noises, the colors, and the smells of the place bombard you at every turn.
These different worlds, thrown together in one boiling mass of humanity, produce a chaotic and exhilarating energy, and I was instantly drawn to all of it. But it also brought to the surface a lot of conflicting thoughts and emotions within myself. And as I walked through the city and interacted with the people there, I found myself beginning to question the validity of how I viewed myself in relation to other people.
I had always looked upon the privileged classes with a degree of judgement and scorn. To my way of thinking, there was something inherently immoral about the accumulation of large amounts of wealth, in a world where dire poverty is so widespread. And I had never had any doubts as to which side of that struggle I was on. But then I found myself surrounded by people that wouldn't make as much money in a year, as I would make in a week, or even a day. There were millions of people struggling to survive in this city, and many of them had to choose between crime, prostitution, begging, starvation, or leaving their home and family for a foreign and potentially hostile land. And seeing this, I had to acknowledge that my own station was far more privileged than I'd ever admitted to myself. Because struggle or not, my options were virtually limitless.
Here, I did not have the luxury of considering the lives of others through the lens of books and movies. I could not sit in the safety of a college classroom, and talk about the collision of cultures and its impact on those that are directly involved. The people in question were now all around me. They weren't photographs, or statistics in a sociology textbook. They were living breathing human beings. And I couldn't cozy up to the romantic notion that my working class status in the U.S., somehow automatically tied me to the struggles of the poor and oppressed worldwide. Here, I was forced to recognize and accept the fact that no matter where I fell among the income strata in the U.S., my status as an American citizen with full-time employment (and with the resources to travel throughout a foreign country), placed me among the wealthiest people in the world. So I now had to take all of the harsh judgement that I had applied to the people that Americans consider wealthy, and see if I could stand up underneath it myself. And one person in particular helped force that view to come into focus for me, more than anyone else that I met on that trip.
It was our first night in D.F. I was sitting in a bar with the two friends that I was traveling with. The bar was on the second floor of an old building made of stone. Near the entrance, there was a small wooden dance floor that stood empty. On the other side of the room, sat a group of eight Mexican men and women, that all looked to be about twenty years old. They were clean cut, well dressed, and just loud enough give the impression that they were having a good time, but not so loud as to be obnoxious. A quiet, heavy-set, middle-aged woman was serving us. The rest of the room was empty.
It wasn't exactly what we were looking for. We wanted to find something a little more lively. But we hadn't received any good suggestions yet, and all of the bar descriptions in our travel book seemed vague. In the other cities that we'd visited, we'd been content to wander the streets aimlessly and leave our night to chance. But we were all a bit apprehensive about the prospect of wandering the streets at night in a city that had such a notorious reputation for crime. So we sat with our beers, and talked about calling it an early night. We still had several more days left, before heading back to Monterrey. Perhaps we'd be better off waiting until we found somebody to point us in the right direction. And then we noticed two attractive young women sitting at a table at the other end of the room, and we decided to have another round of beers.
We were half way through that next round of beer, and still debating the best way to approach a couple of women that were probably on the opposite side of a language barrier, when we noticed that a third woman had joined them. The significance of the language barrier, and any other social barriers, now seemed to be shrinking rapidly. Clearly this was just short of divine providence. Things had been falling into place for us throughout the whole trip, and from underneath the warm and fuzzy comfort of several beers, it looked as though it was happening again.
And then our soft spoken waitress decided to help us out. When she came around to offer us another round, she suggested that we buy a round for the three women as well. Perhaps that should have been a red flag. Perhaps three unaccompanied women sitting in a bar in Mexico City should have been a red flag too. But we were seeing the world as we wanted it to be, not as it was. So we bought the round of drinks and asked the women if they'd mind us sitting with them.
There wasn't any collective "Eureka!" moment for the three of us. But through a series of glances at one another, we did all convey to each other that we finally understood what was happening. We realized that the three women were prostitutes, and that they worked for the bar.
We knew each other well enough to know that none of us were going to be purchasing another human being for sex. But we weren't sure of what it was that we were going to do. And now that we were seated at the table with the three women, it was an awkward topic to discuss.
So we just talked with them. We bought another round of drinks for everybody, and we talked. We used what little collective Spanish was available to us, and they did the same with a seemingly equal amount of collective English. The uneasy feeling that had come with the discovery of their profession, began to fade away. And on the surface it almost became something as simple as three guys talking to three gals.
My supply of Spanish ran out first, and I was initially content to sit in silence and observe. But after a while, I noticed that one of the women had a particularly short supply of English as well, which put her in the same boat as me. So I finished my beer and I asked her if she'd like to dance. She smiled and said yes, and we made our way to the otherwise empty dance floor.
I put some money in the jukebox. She picked the songs. And we took a few spins around the floor. As we danced, I decided to take another shot at speaking with her. With just the two of us, we could talk at our own speed, and perhaps have more success with our words.
We started at the beginning. We exchanged names again. I told her that I lived in Chicago, and she asked if it was really so cold there. I asked her if she had always lived in D.F., and she said that she was from an area not far from the city. She asked about my family, and I told her about them. She furrowed her brow as she took it all in, and occasionally she offered a polite nod. I asked her about her family too. I couldn't discern the details, but it seemed that they were no longer around. Then I asked if she had any children, and she gave me a smile that managed to be both sheepish and enthusiastic. She told me that she'd just had a baby three weeks prior. I asked about the father, and she just shook her head.
I realized how personal our conversation had become, and then the thought came to me that perhaps that was the only type of conversation available to two people that have so few words to work with. Small talk, in its own way, is more complex. It often involves elements such as cultural references and inside jokes. Things which just don't translate well. But simple and honest emotions such as sorrow and joy are universal. And so are the comforts and concerns that inevitably accompany our relationships with friends and family.
I had also become curious about her age as we talked. When we first spotted the women sitting at the table, I might have guessed that they were in their early twenties. But I was starting to realize that my estimate had probably overshot the mark in this case in particular, so I asked her how old she was.
When she said "trece", I stopped in my tracks. I asked her again, thinking/hoping that perhaps I'd misunderstood her, or that my limited Spanish was failing me again. The second time she said it, she said it with a whisper. She had obviously noticed my surprise and discomfort. But the number stayed the same. This girl was thirteen years old.
More specifically, this girl was a thirteen year old single mother. She was living in Mexico City without any family to help her. And she was a prostitute. Those facts punched me in the face one after the other. And on the heels of those facts came several more. I was sitting in a bar, buying her drinks, and talking and dancing with her.
Somehow, in a matter of minutes, I'd gone from a guy that was out to have a few beers, and maybe talk/flirt/dance with a woman, to a guy that was offering at least a passive contribution to child prostitution.
There was an unbearable amount of commotion in my head at that moment. I had no idea what to do. I didn't know which direction I should even start in.
We left the dance floor, and I could see that the girl was embarrassed, and maybe a little ashamed. I wanted to do something to make it better for her. I wanted things to be other than the way they were. But more than anything, I wanted to be out of that building. I wanted to put some distance between myself and what was happening in that bar. I wanted to rebuild that fragile barrier between my world and hers. A barrier that had seemed so solid just an hour before.
I did leave the bar. But I couldn't rebuild the wall. The shock of learning that girl's age, had blown open the window, and given full view to the ugly truths that I'd been choosing to ignore. My world was more closely tied to the world of that child than I'd ever wanted to acknowledge. And my role in the relationship was not as benign as I'd dreamed it to be.
In theory, I'd had some awareness of my privileged life for some time. And I knew that my privileges came at the expense of others. I knew, for instance, that the products that I bought in the U.S., often came from countries where workers were underpaid and maltreated. And that by purchasing those products, I was supporting an unjust and immoral system. But I rationalized my decisions. I told myself, that I couldn't change the world, and that I couldn't possibly function in American society without supporting such systems. I told myself that I had to pick my battles and then move on with my life.
But standing in front of that girl, I was forced to honestly consider the real human impact of that perspective. And, though I tried to block this process out, it also forced me to honestly consider what I truly felt in my gut about my place in the arrangement.
The truth was, that from the moment I'd set foot in Mexico, I'd been enjoying the power and freedom that my relative wealth gave me. I'd walked around like a tiny benevolent dictator, doling out coins that came so easy to me, and feeling self-satisfied when I saw the enthusiasm with which they were gobbled up. That unequal distribution of power made me feel like a giant, and I liked it. I felt dirty and ashamed for liking it, but I liked it none the less.
And I'd still liked it when we were talking to three prostitutes in a bar. I'd convinced myself that I was on firm moral ground because I wasn't going to have sex with any of those women. But the imbalance of power was still there. I had money that they needed, and I got to choose whether they'd get it, what they'd have to give me in exchange, and exactly how much I'd part with. The circumstances stripped those women of most of the equalizers that they might have had if we'd crossed paths in the U.S. And consequently, I was free of any insecurities or social anxieties that I'd have been subject to at home. It was an arrangement that was easy to take advantage of, but one that was in direct conflict with my view of who I am and who I want to be.
I wrestled with that conflict throughout the remainder of the trip, and I still wrestle with it today. I still struggle, sometimes unsuccessfully, to resist selfish impulses, even as I acknowledge the adverse affect that my actions can have on others. I have yet to find a formula for ridding myself of those impulses and desires all together. But I am trying to be more honest with myself about the choices that I'm making. I'm trying to limit the rationalizations and the excuses. I'm trying to be honest with myself about who I am. And I'm hoping that that will bring me closer to being who I want to be.
We stayed in Mexico City for several more days. We climbed the Aztec pyramids outside of the city. We went to museums and parks. We wandered around in the daytime, and soaked up the raw and vibrant life of the city streets. We ate wonderful food. We watched street performers. And then, eventually, we made our way home.
I've been back to Mexico a couple of times since that first trip. It's a beautiful country, and it will always have a special place in my thoughts, because it was the there that the travel bug first took a really big bite out of me.
|Joe, Me, Jason.|
On top of a pyramid, outside of Mexico City.